Thursday, September 11, 2008

Horrors enough


The Strangers based, it claims happily, on a true story, is about a yuppie-ish couple who are tied up, tortured and, for a grand finale, stabbed to buggery by teenagers in grotesque masks. (The tagline is "Because You Were Home...")
Eden Lake pits a totally different yuppie-ish couple against a totally different pack of ferals (including that obnoxious tyke Thomas Turgoose); totally different torture, slashings, severed tongues and burnings alive ensue.
Donkey Punch is light relief: a pack of morons turn psycho when one of them accidentally kills some tart by walloping the back of her neck during sex on a yacht; savage killings ensue.

Urban violence is apparently the new thing in horror; a strange amalgam of the traditional slasher film, the serial killer thriller and that popular hybrid known jovially as torture porn. Aside from identikit plots and identikit best-horror-film-I've-seen-in-ages-type reviews, these films have this in common: their collective presence at the moment when their genre abandoned the last pitiful vestiges of what we can now see was only ever a cynical and opportunist reliance on fantasy, and the pretence of ultimately siding with the angels.
No longer is lip service paid to the threat being countered at the end, no longer are the monsters different from the rest of us, no longer is there any effort to pretend that mere sadism is insufficient as content, and should not be offered explicitly for the delectation of other sadists. Now, torture and thuggery are indispensable ingredients in horror.
This is a huge milestone moment in the history of horror movies akin to the debuts of Psycho or Night of the Living Dead or Texas Chainsaw.
Think back to the last mini-milestone that was Scream. How cosy does that look, already? These are fast-paced times, folks: look out.

It took just ten years to get from The Curse of Frankenstein to Corruption, a mere twelve from Psycho to Last House on the Left, a piffling fifteen from Silence of the Lambs to Hostel. The last journey may be the most interesting of all, not just because it takes in so many unbelievably bad films along the way - Copycat, The Bone Collector, In Dreams, The Cell, Kiss the Girls, Natural Born Killers - but also because it shows how quickly walls tumble once breached.
The official line on Lambs was that it was an important film, not cheap exploitation, so we all dutifully took it seriously and pretended it was serious drama with serious things to say, and we trooped off seriously to see it and went in with serious faces and came out with serious faces. Watching it, we had a lot of fun. How long before we were just allowed to have fun with this stuff? Fifteen years. And look where we are now, and how commonplace it all is now, and how Hostel barely raised an eyebrow.
And still we talk of films 'influencing' people, and argue the toss about it, as if the people who make the films aren't influenced every bit as much as those watching them! As if this clear progression from the shocking to the commonplace, despite the constant upping of the dose of sadism and degradation and masturbatory clinical detail, does not tell its own obvious story of a culture and a product coarsening each other as they march together. Coarsened sensibilities both are coarsened and coarsen others, and the ride never stops.

The name of the game now is realism. The killers are real, the killings are real, the pitilessness is real, the gloating over sadism is real, the hopelessness is real.
Even when Psycho made it okay for ordinary human killers to be fun-scary, the iconography remained resolutely other-worldly. As late in the game as Halloween and the Friday the 13th series, the threat is always overtly monstrous, bordering on supernatural, the killer signposted as fundamentally different from those around him, not least by the adoption of a signature mask that seems somehow more his real face than whatever lies beneath.
Chucky and Freddy were the most the previous generation had to worry about: one a sort of ghost, one a doll, neither likely to be hanging around the back of your local supermarket.
Even the masks are being let go now; true, the killers of The Strangers adopt such disguises, but only to be scary. Like the killers of the Scream series they use horror masks not because they are an outward manifestation of their psyches but because that's what killers wear in the movies. The arrival of films like Wolf Creek and the Hostel and Saw series shows that art now imitates life imitating art imitating life.

I'm aware of the difficulties in addressing this issue. Honestly I am. I realise that all horror films, even those that now seem the mildest, were all offensive to some in their day, and all pushed at their generation's generally agreed lines of taste and decency. Whale's Frankenstein with its ghoulish imagery of violated graves and post-mortem surgery certainly did. Of course, we can look back and say ah, but there is no explicit detail, and no sadistic killings, and order is restored at the end - and all of this would be true, and would point undeniably to a worrying regression in public taste... but it still wouldn't face up to the fact that horror has always stood outside of mainstream consensus, and that perhaps that is its job.
The Raven, with Lugosi getting obvious sexual pleasure from torturing the woman who spurned him, was felt to be horribly sadistic, and was. The trappings and acting style all distance us from it today, and lessen any serious potential it might hold to shock or disturb, but it would disingenuous to say it was always and intentionally thus.
And yet, irrationally perhaps, I find myself thinking that horror films are a luxury for a people that can afford them, a harmless escape valve for ordered, decent societies that have a strong sense of themselves and a shared certainty as to what ultimate values are being violated on screen. In a flabby society of relative values, weak justice, increasing fear and disorder, such films serve a different and darker purpose. The time has perhaps come, then, to tighten our belts and be done with them. Lugosi does it all a million times better anyway. Watch The Devil Bat instead. See the killer bat swoop on its victims, the ones Lugosi has cunningly doused in the after shave lotion that drives it into a killing frenzy, watch Lugosi explain his cunning plot to a large fake bat hanging upside down from a coat hanger. You'll find you don't need to watch people get tied to chairs and disemboweled.

Richard Mansfield, the American actor who was appearing in a London stage adaptation of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde during the time of the Jack the Ripper murders closed his own production down when newspaper gossip linked the play to the mood of the times, and suggested it might even influence the killer. He made one last performance, donating the proceeds to charity, and afterwards thanked his audience for their patronage and took his leave, explaining "There are horrors enough outside."
Lugosi is all the horror I need at the moment; of the other sort, there is enough outside.